Tag Archives: education

Autodidact curriculum

Some folks, after being plied with a couple of brewskis, might shyly admit to having fantasies of being a star quarterback, a rock god or maybe even royalty. My confession: I fantasize of being a syndicated columnist.

My first hero was Molly Ivins, who unfortunately for the world of words and intelligence has passed on.

But I’ve found someone else I’d like to learn from: Mark Morford of the San Francisco Chronicle.

I love to read him for his wit and intelligence, but I hate to read him because he gets away with so many “illegal” writing conventions that come fairly naturally to me (I am NOT saying I can pull them off as well as he can) but that I am told to drop from my writing because “it is not allowed.”

Similar to how, fifteen years before the Harry Potter phenomenon, I was told by my fifth grade creative writing teacher that I shouldn’t continue my story about the magical girl but should focus on “reality.”

One of Morford’s apparently successful infractions: using second person.

I’ll be writing an essay and I’ll want to build an imaginary scenario for the reader. Without making the conscious decision, I find myself talking to the reader, inviting, suggesting, seducing their imagination to follow me down some rabbit hole where we might get a glimpse of a new world, or at least the old world turned on its head. It works so well to say, “You.” But you’re not supposed to.

And yet week after week he uses this tactic, among many others, to great effect.

Though it’s been a couple of years since I took my last class, still I spent enough years being indoctrinated into the scholarly method that I think I will give myself some study materials to figure out what makes Morford’s writing so damn good. I have a pile of his articles that I will inspect, analyze, but above all, enjoy.

I will be writing at least one follow up blog post to let you know what I’ve discovered.

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49er Fantasy

No, not the football team.  Euw.

The miner kind of 49ers.

I’m from California, and the Gold Rush of 1849 has always been one of my most favorite periods in history.

The other day my daughter and I were watching a documentary of the pioneers and the Gold Rush.  It told the story of a family who went west to seek their fortune.  Usually men went without their wives and children and just hoped to make a bunch of money to bring home, or send for their families later.  But this family took off together.

When they arrived, the lady found that the miners would pay five dollars to have a meal cooked by a woman, which of course was a lot of money back then.  Well, maybe not to a guy who just found a bunch of gold nuggets in a creek and has blown phenomenal amounts of cash on booze and prostitutes.  Five bucks for a “home cooked” meal would be nothing.

But anyway, these miners had gone so long without being fed by their womenfolk, not to mention even seeing a woman up close, that she was greatly appreciated.  So much so that she was able to open a restaurant and make a tidy living off her culinary skills.

Now I know that some people fantasize about being Eddie Van Halen, or Angelina Jolie, or maybe even Bill Gates.  Having fame, fortune and glory is a commonplace desire.  But I haven’t felt as envious of anyone’s life as I felt hearing about this woman feeding all those men, winning their innocent affections and being compensated handsomely.  

I imagine, being her, I would feel like the most beneficent goddess mother, appeasing the boys’ stomachs and comforting their loneliness (she had her husband there, so I’m assuming that she was relatively safe from untoward advances.  Either way, nothing inappropriate figures into this particular fantasy of mine!)  They would adore me, looking up at me with their sad, scruffy, hungry puppy dog faces as I set before them some stew and biscuits still hot from the oven.  It would fill their bellies and warm their hearts and their homesickness wouldn’t sting quite so badly for just those few moments.  After their many months of perilous journeying, miserable gold panning, lousy food and rough male company, just the swishing of my clean skirts as I went to fetch the coffee would be like music to their ears.

Silly, I know.  But if a person’s fantasies reveal their essence, then I am all about food, earning a good living and being an adored mother-figure.  

I can live with that.

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Top Five: Most Beloved Things About School

Okay, since I’ve been fantasizing lately about creating a school, I thought I’d see what people dug about it, from the most down-to-earth to the most sublime aspects.  (If you completely despised school feel free to change it to “Top Five Most Crappy Things About School.”)

If I ever get the chance to start one up, I don’t want to leave out any of the good stuff!

My Top Five Most Beloved Things About School:

1.  chalk and chalkboards 

2. tetherball

3. the stack of new books at the beginning of the year/quarter (for college)

4. those classes (like lit and history) that often had great, intelligent discussions, sometimes venturing dangerously far into passionate argument

5. being in the crowd at a really intense sporting event

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Fantasizing about a school…

All this talk of grounding techniques reminds me of a trick I came up with a couple of years ago to get my worrying mind off the poisonous thoughts of “oh no!” and “what if?”  while I’m trying to get to sleep.  I simply turn my mind loose on the fantasy of a school.

Okay, you already knew I was weird.  No sense accusing me of it now.

A school for homeschoolers.

Essentially, a place to gather with others interested in the same subject or to work independently.  A place of resources, mentors and a culture of learning.  A place where the adults want to learn as well.  A place of no grades or tests.  A place where there is a program in place to graduate if that is the path you choose, if your dream is to become a doctor or some other career that requires going to a university.  But instead of being driven by governmental edicts, learning will be fueled by interest, curiosity, will, passion.  Instead of being treated like miserable little factory workers or, dare I say, untrustworthy prisoners, students will be respected as thinking individuals.  The culture of learning will inspire responsibility and serious application of brain &/or body power to chosen tasks, whether they be a study of calculus or drawing with crayons or planting tomatoes.

Hey, it’s a fantasy, what can I say.

There would be workshops of all sorts: art studios, music rooms, a stage with back rooms full of costumes, an organic garden and greenhouses, mechanic garage, computer lab, library, kitchen, sewing area, as well as a couple of academic classrooms for people who wanted to focus on headier subjects.  There would be a huge playground and lots of athletic equipment and fields/courts so that kids and adults could run out their wiggles.  

Don’t ask me how we’d pay the electric bill.  I’m not allowed to think about things like that.  Makes me too tense and leads me back to worrying.

I’m only allowed to imagine how the garden would be laid out, where the strawberry patch would go and how many people would be out enjoying green beans right off the vine.  I’m only allowed to envision how tall the shelves would go in the library, and which books we absolutely MUST have and how many window seats we should put in.  I can only wander the hall and see a group of kids giggling and running out to play before lunch while another older group sits on the edges of their seats arguing about which design of recumbent bike would be most efficient, occasionally glancing around in anxious anticipation of the arrival of the resident bike guru who will help them begin construction.

I can enjoy the thought of a meeting of the writing group, a gathering of adults and teens who trust each other enough to share words and ideas and help each other express themselves to the world. I can imagine the ‘zine they would put together and distribute to everyone they know.

And pretty soon I’m asleep.

I wonder if someday I will fall asleep thinking of these things, but instead of being fantasies they will be memories of a dream come true.

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Taking a ride downtown

Let me preface this post by saying, if your community has a police ride-along program, you should RUN not walk to the police station and sign up.  It is must-see tv up close and personal.

I was worried that the officer would find my presence annoying, but he said that he enjoys the company, and by the way he acted, I believed him.  Once I thought about it, who wouldn’t want to spend a couple of hours impressing the average citizen with computers and lights and incredible acceleration?

Lucky for me nothing too exciting happened.  I’m somewhat of a chicken (which is why I signed up for a Sunday!  If you want action, obviously you’ll want to go for a Friday or Saturday night…) but I got just what I wanted — a backstage pass to hang out with a hero.

My first revelation came when the officer saw a suspicious character and immediately drove TOWARDS him.  My gut instinct is always to run AWAY from trouble screaming like a little girl, and I am seriously shocked and awed by people who are drawn in its direction.  Aren’t we lucky that I am not in law enforcement!!!

My second big eye-opener was to realize how much investigation is involved.  You know how sometimes a patrol car will come up on your tail really fast and you are painfully certain that they are going to pull you over?  Then they disappear?  Several times last night he followed someone and called in their tag, then let them go when he found out it wasn’t who he was looking for.  PHEW!

And this is just one example of the eagle eyes that the officer develops in the line of duty.  Many times throughout the night he would say, “Did you see that?” and I’m looking around wildly into the darkness and then I would finally spot what he saw.  They are constantly scanning for the slightest thing out of place, the smallest sign of suspicious activity, the cars belonging to the people who must have warrants served on them, the faces of wanted people, cars violating traffic laws… etc.  My eyes are only tuned to making sure that traffic is staying where it is supposed to so I can avoid an accident.  For a police officer that is only step one in a long line of visual sorting and decision-making.

I was able to observe how 911 operators are heroes as amazing as the law enforcement out on the street, and the officer gladly acknowledged this.  Within a second he could have the attention of a dispatcher, and his request for information would be responded to within a few more seconds.  They are an efficient and reliable team and I feel very secure knowing that these would be the people working to help me should I ever need it.

Some other random tidbits:

He said that, unlike an episode of “Cops”, police work is 90% boring (paperwork, checking on buildings, driving through neighborhoods, lying in wait for traffic infractions) and 10% exciting.  He says he is an adrenaline junkie so he lives for that 10%.  (I would be avoiding it like the plague!)

He pointed out how people slam on their brakes when they see his car, which actually makes the road more dangerous.  I saw this first hand when he had a difficult time maneuvering through traffic to get to a suspicious car because people began to assume unpredictable speeds as soon as he got close.  Just act cool, people!

He is collecting his evidence and composing his argument to the judge from the first moment he spots a subject or situation.  He has an eye and mind to make sure that a wrong-doer is successfully prosecuted so that the system has the chance to work the way lawmakers intended, and that he, as an officer of the law, does not mess up a single one of the jillion procedures he is supposed to follow, resulting in a criminal getting away with their crime.

And to dispel a final myth: He did not eat a single donut all night.

I cannot express strongly enough how impressed I was with this officer and the department he represents.  I learned a lot and highly recommend the experience to any concerned citizen.

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Driving impaired

A group of us “drove drunk” last night.

At our Citizens Police Academy last night, we got to put on “drunk” goggles, get behind the wheel of a converted golf cart (used as a “metermaid” vehicle in its other life) and attempt to drive through a course of cones set up in the police department parking lot.

We were told that each orange cone represented a child.  I responded that I didn’t want to play that game, so I was going to pretend they were garden gnomes.  The horror of even pretending to run over a child was too much for me to handle.

I chose the easiest goggles, representing your vision if you had a blood alcohol content between .07 and .10 (.08 is the minimum BAC to be guaranteed conviction of DWI in North Carolina) and I could hardly see through them.  Things were blurry and seemed slightly shifted.  I maneuvered the course and grazed three cones.

My husband, thrill seeker that he is, chose the highest BAC, which I think was somewhere around .25.  He actually dragged three cones beneath the cart.  Later I tried those goggles on and tried to walk about three feet to him while he held out his hands for me to grab. It was like looking through a kaleidoscope.  I thought I was grabbing his right hand but when I actually touched his skin, my vision shifted and corrected itself and I was actually grabbing his left.  It was bizarre.

The police department takes these goggles and this obstacle course to the high schools and gets the students to experience what it is like to lose control and “kill” innocent bystanders.  Will it make a difference?  Will it prevent anyone from getting into a vehicle while intoxicated and destroying someone’s child, someone’s mother, someone’s grandfather?

It was a hands-on eye-opener, that is for sure.  I am convinced that we need to go even further to stiffen penalties and implement whatever measures necessary to discourage people from putting their community at risk by driving a loaded weapon while their judgment, vision and reaction time are even slightly impaired. 

This may be an unpopular statement, but I’d like to see the law extended to seriously punish cellphone drivers, make-up putting on drivers, anyone who decides to multitask when their attention needs to be focussed on the serious job at hand.  I decided this when I saw the list of warning signs that police look for when scanning for drunk drivers, which includes: weaving, crossing the center line, turning wide, vacant stare.  I have personally witnessed many of these signs in drivers wielding a cell phone while barreling down the road.  I think you are impaired when your attention is divided, and if it is by something avoidable (you don’t HAVE to answer your phone!) then you are inviting disaster.

We need to take driving much more seriously and we need to somehow force people to give a crap about the people they are endangering when they drive recklessly, whether that is being intoxicated or voluntarily distracted or even just being in too big of a hurry.  

This isn’t cancer or hurricanes, people, where we don’t entirely know how to make it stop.  We as a society have the power to make sure that no one ever again is killed by an impaired driver, simply by choosing, each and every one of us, never again to drive unless we have our wits about us.

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Class update

The two students who showed up were great, but unfortunately they were also at opposite ends of the language experience spectrum.  So I need to split them into two groups… two groups of one!

My problem is I’m a hard worker, a good idea generator, a good teacher, good at communicating in three languages, but I don’t know the first thing about advertising and I really don’t want to have to learn.

Sometimes I resent the fact that I am supposed to handle so many aspects of a situation instead of being able to focus on something.  

But I guess that’s what happens when you strike out on your own.  If you stay on the beaten path then you have some pre-established means of assistance to take care of some of the more mundane, less interesting aspects, like getting the word out.  But when you begin to forge an alternate route, you spend a lot of time trying to reinvent the wheel.

So far, it is worth it to have the freedom and control to do it my own way.

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Language class

Tonight’s the big night.

I managed to get approval from the recreation center to use one of their classrooms, I worked up a good curriculum, and I have two people who say they will come, three if you count the rec center director who wants to sit in.

Not the resounding success I had hoped for, but ya gotta start somewhere.

I suspect that this particular class will go the way of the writing groups I have tried to start in the past, which is nowhere fast.

But I have come up with several positive points to dwell on so that I don’t get discouraged:

  • Scheduling this class, whether it flies or not, gave me the incentive to put together a few weeks worth of conversation class curriculum, something I have wanted to do for a couple of years but always stopped myself with the thought, why?  What particular group of students am I directing it at?  etc.  Planning this class has focussed me enough to get it done.
  • Perhaps I will impress the director with my class packet and my teaching style and he will list my class in the next rec center schedule, which may generate more students than my pitiful few fliers around town
  • I will have put the wheels in motion  (As Mary Poppins says, “Well begun is half done.”)  This includes having the incentive to buy a dry erase board with necessary accoutrements, ten-sided dice (for practicing numbers), and to make a picture file for use in demonstrating vocab/generating conversation.

I know it sounds like I’m being negative in my assumption that this particular class won’t go anywhere, but I have a list for that too:

  • I feel more comfortable assuming the worst, and being pleasantly surprised when things don’t completely suck
  • It feels more emotionally responsible to see this as the first small step/attempt and not set myself up for crushing disappointment by thinking, “This is it!  It’s this or nothing!”
  • I feel like evaluating things realistically is the only way to figure out how to succeed, to know what is working, to change the things that don’t work

None of it feels like work to me.  When I come up with activities, worksheets, dialogues, conversation starters, etc. I do not feel the effort required but am carried away by my enthusiasm and interest.  I find myself looking forward to this kind of work.  In fact I have to be careful to remind myself that it is important, because I tend to put it off too long the way I would set aside reading a book or watching a tv show or any other form of entertainment that must wait indefinitely because I have to cook and clean and mind the kids.  That’s how much I enjoy planning a class.  If that isn’t the ultimate in nerddom, I’m not sure what is.

So we shall see what comes of it this evening.  If there is anything of interest to report, I will write a post about it tomorrow.  Otherwise, I will write a post whenever I get to step two!

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Tutoring

I just got my first tutoring client in our new town, and it’s going to be a short gig.  This kid’s too smart to need me for long.  Just needs a little confidence-building and he’ll be off and running.

But just a couple of sessions is enough to remind me of how much I love it.

When you teach, you have to try to gear the material to EVERYONE, an impossible task but what else are you going to do.

When you tutor, you do whatever they need.  If you can tell they need everything written down to be able to process the information, then you write it.  If you hear one or two recurring pronunciation errors (I tutor languages), you point them out.  If they need you to repeat certain things or jump over that one part or remind them of that thing they keep forgetting… you can be whoever and whatever that student needs.  Do they need you to walk them through the whole exercise?  Do they just need a nudge in the right direction?

I love the fact that everyone learns differently.  I love the challenge of figuring out what a student needs and how I might phrase something so that it makes sense to them.

I remember when I was in grade school and a teacher would explain something and a kid would ask a question, and I could always tell that there was a crossed wire between what the teacher said and what the kid heard.  So how did the teacher answer?  Most of the time: repeat exactly what they said the first time.  I knew, if they just tweaked it, came at the answer from a slightly different angle, this kid would get it.

I love to look at things from all possible angles, walk around some theory or rule or bit of information and investigate it for leaks, holes, or undiscovered treasures.  I love to be able to rotate the invisible gem and make it magically appear for someone who wants to see it.  I love to try to connect that particular piece of the world to all the others, try to fit together some big picture so we might Get It.

The best and worst case scenario in tutoring, I find, is when the student is really inspired by the subject.  Best case, because it is a total joy to watch them drink in the material, so satisfying to realize that they are listening to things I point out and that they put into practice almost everything we cover, so validating that someone else likes to study the subject I’ve devoted so much of my life to.

Worst case scenario because, like my current student, they don’t really need me.  The usual case is the concerned parents see a test score that went amiss for whatever reason and they panic a bit and want to make sure things aren’t heading in the wrong direction.  I provide a couple of sessions worth of support, a few study hints, some guidance to additional resources, and these kids will be able to fly solo.  They want to.  Like I told the parents the other night when they asked for my assessment of their child’s abilities, I don’t want to talk myself out of a job, but honestly, as long as he keeps up with the school work, he’ll do really well.

I’ll just sit here and hope that a few more come along for me soon.

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Substitute Teaching

I have learned a lot in the past few months.

I’ve learned that the level of apathy and extreme frustration among students and faculty is at times unbearable, but despite this most have great affection for each other.  The negative vibes stem from the system set up to organize their time, and they get through it the best they can, supporting each other when possible and trying to maximize the positive and meaningful exchanges.

I have learned that if you enter a classroom loaded for bear, you can always back down later.  Contrariwise, if you enter showing weakness, you are done before you’ve even begun.

I have learned that teaching language is my favorite subject, after all.

I have learned that, as I always suspected, high school is my favorite age group, as far as public school goes.

I have learned that if you can find an aspect of the subject or task at hand that you can get enthusiastic about, it will be contagious, and the day will be funner for all involved.  (“For every  job that must be done there is an element of fun… you find the fun and *snap*! the job’s a game!” –Mary Poppins)

I have learned that I want to enter the fray, to have my own students to nurture and my own room whose atmosphere and resources I can cultivate, to be naive and idealistic and spend as many years as I can making believe that we can make a real difference in kids’ lives, and thus in the world, by respecting their intelligence and interests and serving their need to know and grow.  Maybe if enough of us imagine that it is possible to effect great, wonderful changes, it will become so.

What else is there to do?

 

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Semanturgy and language education

Let’s face it, there are two kinds of people studying foreign languages today in our elementary and secondary educational institutions as well as in our colleges and universities: people who want to and people who are required to. 

The people who want to learn another language, who drool at the sight of a new vocabulary list and spend hours cross-referencing words in various  dictionaries, these wonderful souls do not need much in the way of curriculum.  You could use the oldest, lamest textbook in the world and they would eat it up.  Being one of these languages nerds myself, I know that when I am gathering resources for a class and I want to serve this population, I am looking for any and all types of fun stuff.  The materials do not have to be perfectly organized or tantalizingly arranged, because we are going to joyfully dive into it no matter what.

The other group of language students is another story when it comes to curriculum development. An instructor must always have an eye towards inspiring the reluctant student to realize, if not the joy, at least the utility of the language being acquired.

To this end, I propose that an approach based in sematurgy would be beneficial, both more engaging for students as well as resulting in a greater long term retention of the material.

A language education based on working with meaning would mean that everything would be relevant to actual usage. Students would work with dialogues, music and film for oral production and comprehension, and for reading and writing there would be texts and assignments that related to the students’ personal lives and connect them to the lives of their counterparts speaking the acquired language.

Many of the latest textbooks I have seen do include this type of material, but there is still a large focus on grammar, conjugation and similar types of technical aspects of language. While I would never suggest that these are not vital to a complete understanding of a language, I would state that I do not believe they are necessary for the kinds of introductory language studies we find required for high school diplomas and Bachelor of Arts degrees. I believe they can be left out of these basic language courses and addressed in the intermediate and advanced language studies for those who actually want to pursue a deeper mastery of the language.

Let me briefly present my reasoning behind this: I believe that time spent concentrating on memorizing nitpicky grammar like verb conjugations, for these folks who don’t really want to be studying language, is completely wasted. Even if they manage to memorize it for an exam, they will immediately put it out of their brain and it will never be recalled again. Better for them to spend that time working with meaningful dialogues, lyrics, or texts in which popular verbs will be repeated enough times that they will become stuck in their minds and they will be able to be remembered and used at a future time. Better that the student can walk away with the ability to have basic conversations with people who may one day be encountered than to be able to recite verbs in the subjunctive.

Better still that they spend this time learning about the culture and history of the people who speak the particular language being studied, because isn’t that the major reason given for requiring foreign language study? To be exposed to another way of life?.

Of course, there will certainly be occasions when a discussion of verbs or grammar will become relevant, but it will be brief and presented merely as a tool to accomplish the task at hand. The grammar in a sematurgy-based introductory language education will be acquired mostly unconsciously, similar to the way we acquire the rules of our native language in the natural way before we study them formally later on. We will follow the same non-method as little children learning their first words; a toddler learns the significance of “cookie” and “park” and “no” because they are intensely meaningful.

If we work with what is meaningful to the students and present the acquired language in these terms, whether it is music, society, current events, relationships or any other subject, they will learn important things about the other language-speakers that will deepen their world perspective and they will also retain relevant parts of the language, like basic conversational skills, that will actually be useful in their future lives.

These reluctant students may still never experience the joy of becoming fluent in another language, but they will at least integrate basic, useful parts of that language into the knowledge base they develop by interacting with the world in a personal, meaningful way, and so the language will be for them what language should be: a vital tool of authentic communication.

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Semanturgy – meaning as medium

When you study a second (or third or fourth) language, there comes a point in your conversational ability where you stop trying to translate everything you hear and say into and out of your native language. The words of this new language become directly linked into meaning, and when you mean something, suddenly an approximation of this meaning comes immediately out of your mouth using sounds and inflections that you did not know how to use at one time in your past. 

 

I am fluent in three languages, and at one point I had a conversation with a neighbor who was also trilingual. It was one of the most wonderful conversations I’d ever had: his native language was Spanish, mine English, and we both were fluent in French. Still, we did not know every word in our non-native languages, so when we began to stumble, we would switch spontaneously into another language. We used all three languages without any real regard to which one we were speaking or hearing, just switching as it felt necessary, rather than pause to search for the word.

That night I had a dream in which I was speaking to a few people in an informal setting, and I had the clear awareness that no specific set of sounds, no verbal code was coming out of anyone’s mouth, although we were talking. We were exchanging meaning in its essential state. That is all I can tell you about it, except to say that it was really cool. Ironically, I have no other words to describe the sensation.

But the feeling that meaning is a kind of substance, albeit a quite slippery one, has stayed with me, and I can recall it at will. It is like the sun in that it illuminates the world, but it is difficult to stare at directly.

It is a resource that we waste with our thoughtless habits, our assuming natures, our rote and inattentive interactions with others. There are surely other ways to become aware of its existence besides learning a new code with which to express it, but language education is certainly a good trigger. In my next post I will discuss the way in which meaning should form the foundation of language education.

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Experts

Our society becomes supremely credentialed.  I am a passionate proponent of education, but as the inflation of degrees continues, we are forced into massive debt simply to justify our worthiness to do anything. And as we earn these degrees, we move further and further away from the true nature of our subject material.

In eras past, once you graduated from the schoolhouse you had pretty much proven your ability to teach there. Now, you must have multiple pieces of paper, for example, a Bachelor’s degree, a Master’s, as well as certification of some type, to be allowed to set foot in the classroom. Someone like me, with proven competence in my subject matter, many years experience tutoring, homeschooling, interning as well as teaching at a major university, a B.A. summa cum laude with honors, a natural teaching ability, plus a lifetime spent reading, studying, and reflecting on the nature and process of education… eh, just doesn’t cut it. Not enough pieces of paper!!!

Which I will get, eventually, I am highly skilled at submitting myself to the established protocols and jumping through hoops.And this is really what they want to make sure you are programmed to teach, right? The actual process of teaching is not the focus so much as ensuring that teacher and student follow proper procedures leading to successful completion of assigned examinations and various other kinds of paperwork, that everyone keeps within the established timetable and curriculum.

So really, all my wanking about an enthusiastic presentation and exploration of content just proves that I’m not ready to teach in the real world because I am too naive and idealistic to understand what really goes on. The goal is not to become a facilitator for the inspired interaction of student and subject material, but an expert who can shuttle them through the maze leading to the all-valuable piece of paper. That’s all that will count for anything anyway.

I am in no way disparaging teachers, those brave souls down in the trenches making the best of a crap situation. Administrators, politicians passing laws, even researchers in their ivory towers, in other words, the official “experts” in education, they are the ones that pretend they know but do not.

Why do we carry on like this? Why do we allow someone with a golden-edged piece of paper to intimidate us so that we turn our back on things we know and go along with their absurd plans (e.g. “No Child Left Behind”). Because they have us in a financial stranglehold? Our educational system, like everything else, comes down to money. Teachers have to eat, too, and so the slide into their red-tape tar pit seems inevitable.

Is there a way to take it away from the “experts”? Is there a way to extricate their claws of theory from the jugular of reality and make education not an irrelevant path of tedium but something that feeds the mind and the soul of all involved?

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Grades are evil

A “necessary” evil, some would say. But why necessary? Because, for economic reasons, we insist on having far more students per class than an instructor can possibly give adequate individual attention to. I think most people accept the traditional evaluation process as “just the way things are” and forget that this is a choice we continue to make with our budgetary priorities. “Things” could be different.

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A Passion for Words

Though my interest is often piqued by all kinds of subjects, my biggest passion is for words. I’ve always enjoyed writing in many genres, although I have come to hate the literarily analytical essay, in the same way as if I had forced myself for years to eat chocolate at times when I had no inspiration to do so, and was prevented from eating chocolate when I craved it, I would certainly have come to despise chocolate.

Here is where I come to the heart of what “unschooling” means to me: learning that becomes effortless because it is borne on a wave of curiosity and desire.

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Defining different approaches to learning

I would like to define some terms so that those who are not familiar with alternative educational movements can get an idea of the differentiation between the approaches, and those who are familiar with alternative education will know my particular take on it. I recognize advantages and disadvantages to each approach, which I will explore more fully in future essays. My objective now is simply to have a starting point and an overview.

Traditional School — studies are compulsory and involve a predetermined curriculum, though some subjects may be elective in nature; grades are almost always used; exams are a fundamental tool of evaluation; classes tend to have more than 10 students; the teacher is the expert and the authority to be obeyed, mimicked and accepted absolutely; the process of learning is tied to a building, location, establishment

Homeschool — purposeful education not tied directly to an establishment; can involve grades, worksheets, exams, an authoritarian facilitator; if there are classes (e.g. large families or homeschoolers getting together) they would be much smaller than in traditional school so that students get more individual attention; generally still involves the idea that a grownup has decided that there is a subject that needs studying and the child is convinced, by whatever method, to learn it; some type of evaluation is necessary to ensure that the target subject matter of the curriculum is successfully acquired

Unschool — what might be described as “accidental” education, meaning the learning is driven by student curiosity without bounds (other than safety and appropriateness of subject matter); subjects combine in an organic fashion so that a sudden interest in frogs might lead to biology, measurement, reading, and/or art; basic skills are learned not for their own sake but because they are vital tools to explore a chosen subject; the facilitating adult often learns just as much as the student; the idea of evaluation becomes irrelevant because there is no predetermined body of knowledge that must be acquired; the authority becomes the subject matter/reality which all participants are willingly exploring/analyzing/studying or whatever their approach happens to be, absorbing input without focussing on the act of learning itself

Free School —(sometimes even called “Free Skool”) A combination of all three approaches, wanting the advantages of a pooling of resources, community, and a set location provided by a traditional approach, the smaller classes and individual attention of a homeschooling approach, plus the open possibilities and student control of unschooling. From my experience with an alternative school as well as accounts I’ve read, such as A.S. Neill’s book “Summerhill,” I envision classes offered that students are free to choose or reject, with each class coming to their own understanding of grades, exams, etc., as well as free time and resources to explore, study and/or work on whatever the individual is inspired to put their energy into

I admit having had in the past, with vestiges probably visible presently, a strong aversion to traditional school, though personally I was highly successful in that environment. As my older children have entered public school I have seen firsthand the advantages of this setting for them and have tried to minimize the disadvantages. This on the heels of having my ideal of a free school come into serious question with my experience at an alternative school. I believe I am moving toward a somewhat detached objectivity, realizing that nothing is perfect, though we must always strive for perfection. I know that my love of this world has only grown, and my joy of learning and of being present for others’ discoveries about this world will always keep me interested in trying to work out the best process and environment for education. For those reading this who share similar interests, I hope we can exchange ideas, dreams and experiences to enrich each other’s understanding.

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The Adventure of Homeschooling

I homeschooled my oldest until she was 12, my second child until he was 10. My five year old I am keeping out of kindergarten this year to have at least one more year with her. I have always loved learning and the greatest joy of parenting for me is being there when my kids follow their curious natures and end up in a place of wonder. This can apply to something as seemingly insignificant as “discovering” a new bug they’ve never seen before to something as necessary as a fundamental understanding of addition. To me it is all important and wonderful. Even though two of my kids are in traditional schools this year, I am still involved as much as I can by helping them study and giving whatever support I can.

My background in education is pretty varied. I have tutored numerous times, done an internship with a middle school Spanish teacher, spent two years as a French instructor at a major university, for three years volunteered many hours every week at an alternative “unschool,” developed curriculum for language education, plus many hours dreaming of the ideal learning environment and process, which to me is an infinite task since we all approach the world differently and thus need a slightly different presentation.

My major problem with traditional education is how much it limits the students through evaluation, literary canon, impersonal standards, just a general attitude of authoritarian implementation of limited subjects. Ideally I think that learning should be fueled by the natural enthusiasm and curiosity that children are born with and will retain if this spirit is not crushed early on. However, I am old enough to realize that my ideals must be tempered with realistic expectations so that they can best serve real needs in the real world.

The major obstacle I have encountered in my experience with homeschooling is that, at a certain age, a child’s natural need and desire to separate from their parents makes every lesson a torture. The kids want to explore further, they want to interact with adults that might be more compatible with their temperaments, they want to differentiate themselves to be their own individual. Their parents still have a lot to offer them, of course, they always will, but at a certain age they need other (safe) people to interact with and learn from/with. They just get too much direction and controlling oversight from their parents all day long, and it becomes too much. (I recognize that a lot of this may just be a result of my personality!)

In addition to other topics I explore, I will be writing essays reflecting on my experience with education, exploring various philosophies and ideas about learning, and also just dreaming about the possibilities for the future. I welcome questions, comments, ideas, and feedback.

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Filed under education, kids